Last week I got the chance to sneak out of the office for a few hours to visit and report on the 2011 UA Apprentice Competition. Held in Ann Arbor, Mich., it is an intense contest designed to test the skills of UA apprentices.

I was told by Pete Marzec, the chair of the competition, that it’s essentially the World Series of the crafts. The contestants at the finals have had to win their way through local, state, and regional competitions to make it to the finals in Ann Arbor. The finalists represent five U.S. regions and Canada, and they come to compete in their respective craft: plumbing, pipefitting, HVAC service, steamfitting, or sprinklerfitting. It’s easy to figure out who’s who by what they’re wearing: contestants wear denim shirts, judges wear yellow polos, and last year’s winners wear red polos.

One of the guys walking around in a red polo was Kyle Cunningham of Oakland, Calif. Cunningham was the overall winner in HVAC service last year, and he was excited to come again this year as a mentor to the current contestants. He said that winning the competition had opened up new opportunities for him, and he is now training to become a UA instructor.

Not only was I impressed by Cunningham, I was also impressed by the determination and focus of this year’s contestants. Since I got there during the final hours of the hands-on portion of the competition, I didn’t dare interrupt them for interviews, but I could see how hard they were working. And despite the pressure they were under, they were still very courteous.

My favorite sidelight were the small, quiet cheering sections of wives and girlfriends, who had obviously been sitting and watching for hours as their significant others competed in their craft. When’s the last time your better half came to cheer you on as you serviced a split system?

Of course, it was also nice to see all of the industry support for the contest, as evidenced by the generous sponsorship and donations of companies like Carrier, Ridgid, Appion, Victaulic, and many others. It’s good to see the industry recognize and support the young talent coming in to the industry.